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How Smart Were Rexy and her Tyrannosaur Friends? Scientists Disagree

They may have been smart enough to solve puzzles, if only their arms were long enough to reach the pieces.

By Cassidy Ward

In 1993, John Hammond and a team of scientists drunk on genetic power resurrected a whole bunch of prehistoric creatures and opened up a theme park. They grew dinosaurs of every shape and kind, creatures extinct for more than 65 million years, without really knowing what was going to come out of the egg. Before Jurassic Park even had a chance to open properly, circumstances both natural and economic conspired to present the dinosaurs with an opportunity, and they were smart enough to exploit it.

Paleontologists have long debated the intelligence of dinosaurs. They have, at times, been considered lumbering, violent animals with nary a thought in their heads. At other times, we’ve imagined dinosaurs as cooperative creatures with social structures and intelligence comparable to some modern birds and even primates. The latest data, however, suggests they weren’t particularly unintelligent or particularly smart, but just right.

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Are Tyrannosaurs as Smart as Some Primates?

Liz tyrannosaurus skull

Just like with people, we can’t really make any broad statements about the intelligence of any animal. Intelligence varies from individual to individual and from species to species, and it’s more complicated than just the hardware in your skull. That said, scientists can narrow in on a range of cognitive capacity based on a number of factors, including the size of the brain relative to the body and the number of neurons inside that brain.

A January 2023 study in the Journal of Comparative Neurology used those criteria to estimate the potential intelligence of Tyrannosaurs like Jurassic Park’s Rexy. Because the soft tissues of dinosaurian brains aren’t preserved, scientists rely on the fossilized bony brain case left behind. That can tell scientists the volume of the brain, but not necessarily the structures within the brain. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, the study’s sole author, used living relatives of extinct dinosaurs, like birds and crocodilians, to estimate the number and type of neuronal connections in the Tyrannosaur brain.

When Herculano-Houzel crunched the numbers, they landed on an intelligence level comparable to some monkeys. The study suggests that Tyrannosaurs may have had much higher cognitive capacity than previously thought. If correct, they may have been smart enough to solve puzzles, if only their arms were long enough to reach the pieces. A new study revisited Herculano-Houzel’s methods in an attempt to confirm the brain size and number of neurons in the brains of Tyrannosaurs and other dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurs Were No Geniuses, but They Were Smart Enough

Artwork of a Tyrannosaurus rex hunting

The recent study, published in The Anatomical Record, came to dramatically different conclusions for two main reasons. First, it suggests that the previous work overestimated the size of Tyrannosaur brains, particularly the forebrain. As a result, the number of neurons was also overestimated. Second, it suggests that even if accurate, neuronal count may not be a reliable measure of intelligence.

If Tyrannosaurs were smarter than other dinosaurs or than their living relatives, we might expect them to have a larger brain relative to their bodies. The brain uses a lot of its processing power just pumping blood, breathing, digesting food, and running the countless other biological processes that keep an animal alive. If you want an animal to be smart, it has to have some processing power leftover once all of the maintenance is accounted for. Having a higher brain to body ratio, some scientists suggest, means a creature has more to work with for problem solving.

In this new analysis, researchers did not find that Tyrannosaurs had particularly large brains relative to their bodies. By contrast, when scaled down, Tyrannosaur brains appear to be comparable to those of living lizards and crocodilians. Only in the Maniraptoriforms, the group which contains birds (the only living dinosaurs) did researchers find larger than typical brain size.

Tyrannosaurs probably weren’t especially intelligent, and they almost definitely weren’t as smart as a monkey, but they didn’t have to be. Evolution has a funny way of molding a creature to be precisely as smart as it needs to be, barring the appearance of a killer asteroid.

Catch Rexy (the smartest and best Tyrannosaur there is) in Jurassic Park, available from Universal Pictures.